Two years ago, Hurricanes Irma and Maria stripped Dominica of its lush, green landscape, as they battered the tiny Caribbean island just two months apart. They toppled trees and power lines, and debris littered the streets, leaving roads impassable.
Today the island has made a stunning recovery. Its foliage and vegetation have returned, with only a few bare coconut trees as a reminder of nature’s fury.
Dominica has been often been referred to as the “nature island” but has faced challenges in attracting tourists from more popular destinations like Jamaica, the Bahamas, Puerto Rico and the oft-confused Dominican Republic. But recently the influx of a new wave of foreign entrepreneurs, coupled with local investment promises to turn the island into a thriving tourist destination.
Business Day visited the island from June 13- 16 to see firsthand the progress made in getting the island back to work.
Opening a business is a huge risk as there are no ways to guarantee a return on investment, especially in a sector as saturated as the tourist industry. This risk is magnified for foreign investors with little experience in the region.
Owner of the Pagua Bay Guesthouse and restaurant, Alicia Paige Davison is a US citizen who has lived in Dominica for the past 14 years. She has distinguished her brand as she accommodates tourists who want the comforts and luxuries of a five-star resort without sacrificing the authentic Dominican aesthetic.
Speaking with reporters at her guesthouse in Marigot, northern Dominica, Davison said while there is a market for eco-tourism, the challenge lies in getting tourists to the island, as many of the flight schedules to the islands have not yet recovered.
“For a lot of our guests, it takes them two days to get here, two days to go home, so that’s in transit, money they have to spend in other countries.
“The flights are also very expensive right now so that’s really been hindering us, because the interest is there, we get tonnes of inquiries from potential guests. They will send us a question on a time frame, how much it will cost, et cetera, and we send them an email with the information. After that they often send us a message saying it’s too hard to get here and they will have to wait another year, so the interest is there but it’s difficult to get here.”
Davison’s concern over the stunted arrivals of tourists to the island have not been ignored. Senior officials in Dominica’s tourism industry acknowledged the challenges and promised solutions.
Speaking with reporters at his downtown Roseau office, CEO of the Discover Dominica Authority (DDA) Colin Piper said he was aware of the concerns of the ease of travel to the island and said it was something he intends to address immediately.
“Recovery has been remarkable, from the cleanup to rebuilding properties. Cruise ship arrivals resumed less than 100 days after Hurricane Maria and we were able to get out visitor arrivals back up to just a 13 per cent decline.
“We continue to work on the feasibility of air access, its convenience and affordability. We want to make sure when you put Dominica on your bucket list you are able to come at your own convenience.”
This response might not come soon enough, so one hotel chain has a solution to meet the demand of US tourists, at least in the short term.
Michael Schoonewagen is the general manager of the highly-anticipated Cabrits Resort and Spa Kempinski Dominica and he says while he understands the challenge facing hoteliers on the island, he intends to lease two small planes to bring the tourists himself.
“We have the DDA that has been working for the past two years. Colin Piper and myself have been hosting meetings together and I know they are seeking airline companies from the US and other countries to come.
“We are creating our own little airline company with two beach craft – 12 seaters – and we will try to set up a package where when you land in Antigua or Guadeloupe (both of which have more reliable air services) and we will come and pick you up from those islands to Dominica.”
Nestled at the base of the Cabrits National Park in Portsmouth, in the northern part of the island, the resort promises to be the largest on the island thus far.
Asked what he felt the Kempinski brand could offer the island that hasn’t already been brought by other hotels, Schoonewagen said the franchise takes its social responsibility seriously and wanted to give back to Dominica and its people after the hurricanes.
“The economy was devastated, especially in Portsmouth here in the northern part of the island. We are now re-starting the economy by hiring and training the locals. We will have 60,000 people coming through this hotel so there’s a lot of add-on effects to the economy in terms of transport and food that will benefit from our presence.”